Monthly Archives: January 2017

Administration responds to legislators’ outsourcing critique; author not impressed

State Finance Commissioner Larry Martin says he was surprised that 20 legislators wrote a letter criticizing Gov. Bill Haslam’s privatization plans without first talking things over with the administration and that their criticism involved “possible misinformation,” reports The Tennessean.

The legislators (17 Republicans, 3 Democrats) sent a letter to University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro on Jan. 13, getting a fair amount of state media attention. (Previous post HERE.) Martin wrote a six-page letter in response last week.

“Given our past discussion on this effort, I was surprised an opportunity to respond to any concerns you have was not afforded to my office,” Martin wrote. “In an effort to assist in this regard, statements from your letter and further clarification are provided below.”

… Throughout his response, Martin touted what he said were markers of success in the early phase of privatizing state work, including millions of dollars in savings and national awards. He said Tennessee “is considered an innovator among state governments in the area of facility management outsourcing,” and suggested that expanding the effort would improve services on campus.

Martin said universities could privatize facilities management and still maintain autonomy and flexibility. He also said that “strict language” would ensure that state employees could transition to work at the private companies, “including total equitable compensation, education, and health insurance benefits.”

But state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, who wrote the original letter and invited other lawmakers to add their names, said Martin’s response did little to dispel his concerns. Briggs noted that many of Martin’s points were similar to ones he presented during legislative hearings on the outsourcing plan last year.

“To me it wasn’t anything new,” Briggs said. “They just reiterated the same message that they had given us last year.”

… Briggs said he planned to meet with Martin next week to discuss outsourcing in more detail, but he doubted the conversation would change his mind. He said his criticism of the proposal was motivated in part by the presidential election, when messages tailored to working-class voters powered the candidacies of Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump.

Workers and their advocates in Tennessee have generally been critical of the governor’s plan.

“That’s part of my stand. The election was a wake-up call for me,” Briggs said. “We need to start listening to these people.”

Memphis transit CEO among 42 caught in TBI prostitution sting

Ron Garrison, chief executive officer with Memphis Area Transit Authority, was among 42 people arrested in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation sting to crack down on what authorities characterized as human trafficking in Memphis, reports the Commercial Appeal.

Garrison, arrested Wednesday, faces a misdemeanor charge of patronizing prostitution near a church or school. He resigned from his office on Thursday and TBI officials had a news conference to announce the arrests on Friday.

His offense reportedly involved an adult and not a juvenile.

The former MATA leader’s arrest and the link to his resignation — termed for health issues — emerged just before a Friday morning news conference where the TBI and local authorities announced the results of the sting operation called “Operation Someone Like Me.” More than 40 people, including Garrison, were charged in connection with law enforcement effort aimed at curbing human trafficking, officials said.

Officials with MATA confirmed Friday morning that Garrison was arrested for prostitution-related charges. The MATA board accepted his resignation following a closed-door meeting Thursday afternoon. Gary Rosenfeld, MATA’s chief administrative officer, was named interim CEO during the search for Garrison’s replacement, MATA board chairman Sean Healy said.

“As it relates to today’s announcement from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation regarding former MATA CEO Ron Garrison, this in no way diminishes the contributions of Mr. Garrison at MATA during his tenure over the last few years,” the authority said in a statement Friday morning. “MATA and its Board of Commissioners wishes him well in his future endeavors. But, our top priority as an organization is to remain committed to the number one task at hand and that is diligently serving the Memphis public and our customers by identifying dedicated funding sources and ensuring that public transit is a reliable option for the Memphis area. While the leadership may have changed at MATA, our commitment to our mission has not.”

Note: TBI’s news release on the bust, including a list of all those arrested, is below.

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Knoxville settles lawsuit over guns at city park

Knoxville officials will relax the gun ban at the city’s Chilhowee Park under an agreement to resolve a pending lawsuit, reports the News Sentinel. Under the deal, there will be no ban except when a scheduled event is underway at the park.

“If somebody wants to avail themselves of the facility on an average day (when no events are scheduled), it’s fine for them to have a handgun,” city Law Director Charles Swanson said Friday. “Otherwise, no guns will be allowed.”

Loudon County resident Pandora Vreeland sued the city in October 2015, saying she was afraid to attend that year’s Tennessee Valley Fair at the park when she learned she wouldn’t be allowed to carry her gun into the park — even though she holds a valid carry permit. The city bans guns from being carried at the fair or any other ticketed event there.

Vreeland and her attorney claimed the ban violated state law, as laid out in a July 2015 opinion by Attorney General Herbert Slatery. Changes to the law that year overrode any city and county ordinances barring permit holders from bringing guns to local parks. The attorney general determined that change applies even during ticketed events such as a concert.

The city insisted the Chilhowee property off Prosser Road isn’t a park — despite its name — but a “public assembly facility” not managed by the Parks and Recreation Department and not open to the general public during special events and that the law therefore doesn’t apply.

Under the settlement filed Thursday in Vreeland’s lawsuit, the city sticks to its guns that Chilhowee isn’t a park — despite its name — but admits the city “has historically allowed the public to access and use the outdoor facilities … when those facilities are not leased or otherwise in use for an event.” Swanson said that means permit holders who want to visit the site at those times can feel free to bring their guns.

…The settlement doesn’t affect a separate lawsuit filed last year by Kimberly Bergeron, a 57-year-old grandmother and permit holder threatened with arrest if she brought her gun to the fair last year. That lawsuit remains pending, with no hearings immediately set.

Teachers protest Alexander’s backing of DeVos, ignored phone calls

About 150 people, many of them teachers, protested outside Sen. Lamar Alexander’s Nashville office Friday in a show of opposition to the Republican senator’s support for Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, reports The Tennessean.

Educators at the protest said DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and vocal supporter of charter school expansion, is not qualified for the job. Unlike former education secretaries, DeVos has not attended, taught or held a leadership position in public schools.

DeVos, at times, was unable to answer questions about education policy and law at her confirmation hearing Jan. 17. Democrats were on the attack during the meeting, while Republicans defended DeVos, including Alexander, who said she is “on our children’s side.”

Educators said they hope Alexander will reconsider his support of DeVos.

“We’re here because we’re schoolteachers, because we’re parents,” said Jenee Peters, a sixth-grade math teacher in Washington County. “She never went to public school, her children never went to public school. She knows nothing about public school, and that was very clear during her confirmation hearings.”

… Numerous teachers said they’ve called Alexander’s offices to be met only by messages of a full voicemail box.

A spokeswoman for Alexander said in a statement his staff has answered office telephones as fast as possible, but there’s been an overwhelming number of calls, mostly from people with various opinions on President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

“Sen. Alexander welcomes all Tennesseans’ comments and keeps them in mind when making decisions,” the statement said.

‘Unfounded rumor:’ Peyton Manning eyes run for Lamar’s Senate seat

A recent bit of political gossip suggests that Sen. Lamar Alexander won’t run for reelection in 2020 and that Peyton Manning might run to succeed him. An Alexander spokesman calls the report, which appeared this week in a Politico notebook, an “unfounded rumor,” reports the Times-Free Press.

Here’s the brief note:  “BUZZ: Several Republicans are wondering whether Peyton Manning will run for Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) seat when he retires. GOP insiders say Alexander won’t run for another term in 2020.”

“Like everybody else in Tennessee, Senator Alexander is a big fan of Peyton Manning,” said Alexander Chief of Staff David Cleary in a statement. “The senator has made no formal decision about 2020 but he’s fundraising and taking the steps one would take to prepare for re-election.”

Cleary noted Alexander had a 60 percent job approval rating in a December poll conducted by Vanderbilt University poll “and is busy as chairman of the Senate Health and Education Committee repairing the damage caused by Obamacare and implementing the law fixing No Child Left Behind.”

Cleary said Alexander, 76, also remains “focused on maintaining a Republican majority in 2018 and helping Senator Corker with his campaign in Tennessee.”

…Tom Ingram, Alexander’s long-time political adviser, said “it’s ridiculous to print rumors without any foundation” regarding Alexander. As far as I know, he is [running in 2020]. That’s the message I got. And we’re preparing full speed ahead.”

…Manning was invited this week to speak to congressional Republican leaders during the annual GOP retreat….Both Alexander and Corker had welcomed Manning, a well-known contributor to Republicans, to the political gathering. Fox News speculated Manning’s Thursday “pep talk is likely to fuel speculation about whether Manning, who retired from the gridiron last year, will run for elected office.”



Harwell sets up task force on prescription drug abuse

News release from House Speaker’s office

NASHVILLE — Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) this week created a task force on opioid and prescription drug abuse. The task force’s immediate goal will be to work on legislation, but its efforts will be ongoing to determine the best strategies for tackling the opioid epidemic. Tennessee is consistently ranked at the top of the charts nationally with regards to prescription drug abuse.

“This task force presents an opportunity to have a very serious conversation about opioid and prescription drug abuse in our state,” said Speaker Harwell. “The statistics are devastating: there are more opioid prescriptions than there are people in Tennessee. In 2015, 1,451 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses, the highest annual number in our state’s history. And the number of babies born who have been chronically exposed to opioids is high, particularly in East Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Health reports that from 2000 to 2012, the rate of babies born with exposure increased 15 fold. We can, and should, do more to ensure this is not happening.”

She continued, “The Tennessee General Assembly has passed some legislation in the past targeting the problem, but I believe we also need to look toward solutions that include treatment and prevention measures. I believe this task force can be an asset as we work to address this issue in this session and in the future.”

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that prescription opioid abuse has a total economic burden of $78.5 billion per year in the United States. There is an estimated $7.7 billion criminal justice cost across the country.

Speaker Harwell appointed the following members to the task force:

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Haslam’s OK with refugee program as is; also with Trump suspending it

Gov. Bill Haslam reiterated his confidence in the country’s refugee resettlement program, but said he understands President Donald Trump’s need to review it.

Further from The Tennessean:

“I think any new president deserves a right to review the process and see if he is comfortable with what we’re doing, if he wants that to be the policy of his administration,” Haslam said. “I think it’s perfectly fine.”

Trump, according to multiple media reports, is expected to suspend the country’s refugee resettlement program, which brings in thousands of people from across the globe seeking asylum. A draft of a presidential executive order says the program would be suspended for 120 days.

The president has already signed immigration-related executive orders this week. On Wednesday he signed two orders that include plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and stop federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that protect migrants in the country illegally.

There are no sanctuary cities in Tennessee. However, that didn’t stop Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, from filing state legislation Thursday (SB155) that would threaten state funding for any city that adopts sanctuary city policies. Similar legislation filed last year didn’t go anywhere.

… “For me, I looked at it and thought the people that are coming to us are primarily victims of either religious persecution or are living in a war-torn land where they’re trying to escape violence for their family, and that the vetting process we have is a good one,” Haslam said.

State legislative leaders disagree and are in the process of filing a lawsuit for noncompliance of the Refugee Act of 1980 based on the 10th Amendment.

Haslam’s broadband bill draws some legislator criticism

Some legislators are not sold on Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to provide government subsidies to private telecommunications companies that expand broadband service into rural areas and authorizes non-profit electric cooperatives to offer broadband services, reports the Times-Free Press.

But the governor’s bill does not let municipal electric systems get into the broadband business outside their service areas.  Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) has been pushing to do so for years. The bill also would not allow the electric cooperatives to handle money-making cable TV service on their broadband.

Asked why he didn’t include EPB and other municipal electric services, Haslam said, “You have a situation where we’d much rather have private providers rather than government-subsidized entities have the first crack at getting that done.”

… At first blush, state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, whose district includes underserved areas, wasn’t happy.

“What I wanted is a free and open ability for any elected board of any co-op to make its own decisions what to do,” Carter added. “And it could contract with anyone, including the municipals, private enterprise — anyone — to do that.”

… State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, said the measure only goes halfway in removing regulatory limits that she said now limit fiber optic service in much of Tennessee “and keeps too many rural citizens from participating in the 21st century digital economy.”

“I’m certainly glad that electric co-ops will be able to retail fiber services under this measure and I think that will be significant,” she said. ” I am amazed that some of the giant, investor-owned telecoms have been able to confuse the conversation by trying to make it about what is fair for the provider, instead of focusing on what is right for the consumer.”

… Investor-owned telephone companies such as AT&T and private cable TV companies such as Comcast and Charter have long objected to having to compete with government entities such as EPB, which they contend have an unfair advantage by not paying income taxes and enjoying government-supported borrowing abilities.

But Bowling said she thinks “it is disingenuous to say you don’t want municipal utilities, which they equate with ‘big government,’ to compete with the private sector when you are giving another $45 million of taxpayer money to these private businesses.

Top Haslam advisor/strategist Leslie Hafner resigns to work for Harwell

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Leslie Hafner is leaving the administration to serve as senior policy advisor to House Speaker Beth Harwell.

Joining the governor’s Cabinet in 2011, Hafner served as Director of Legislation before becoming the governor’s senior advisor in July 2015, serving as a top advisor and strategist for the administration and assisting the governor in day-to-day activities.

“Leslie has been an invaluable member to our team, and every achievement we’ve had since 2011 has Leslie’s influence behind it – from the TEAM Act to Tennessee Promise,” Haslam said.  “Her judgment, experience and knowledge extend far beyond the legislative process, touching on just about every facet of the governor’s office. I will miss her counsel and look forward to working with her in her new capacity. She will be a great asset to Speaker Harwell.”

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With President Trump, sponsors of bills broadening TN abortion ban optimistic about passage, court challenges

State Rep.  Micah Van Huss has filed a bill (HB108) that would prohibit abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically around the eighth week of pregnancy, while Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver is sponsoring a bill (HB101) that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks.

Both bills would violate current abortion rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, but Van Huss, R-Gray, tells the Johnson City Press that those rulings can change with President Donald Trump appointing new justices for approval of a Republican-controlled Congress.

Van Huss said Thursday that the point during gestation in which a heartbeat can be detected is the earliest markable point in pregnancy, usually between six and 12 weeks, but at an average of eight.

“It’s quite a jump,” he said of the proposed change from the state’s current criminal abortion statute, which sets the threshold at the point of viability of the fetus, which is normally between 24 and 26 weeks.

“If enacted, it will eliminate about 90 percent of abortions in the state, and it goes in tandem with my belief that unborn children should have the right to life,” he said.

…Van Huss said he’s banking on newly elected President Donald Trump to appoint a pro-life justice to the Supreme Court, which may be asked to consider early abortion bills.

“I can’t say whether or not I expect it to go to the Supreme Court, it’s not the intention of the bill,” he said. “But if it does go to the Supreme Court, I would hope they would rule to protect life.”

Weaver, R-Lancaster, had a similar bill last year, but never pushed for a vote in a House subcommittee when it appeared likely to fail. She tells The Tennessean things seem different this year.

“I think the climate and the culture, the pendulum is swinging…It’s the right thing to do…”There’s a time and a season for everything… People are understanding, our culture is changing. These are individual babies.”

Also from The Tennessean:

“None of this is about protecting the health and safety of women,” said Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle & Eastern Tennessee.

“Given the results of the election and the promise of the president to appoint justices who are going to be hostile to Roe, I think it is part of nationwide strategy to do everything possible to get cases back before the Supreme Court to overturn that decision to make abortion illegal and ban it in this country.”



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